The cataclysmic prison riot near the end of The Big House (1930) reaches such a fevered pitch that army tanks are called in to combat the inmates. The tanks roll into the prison yard like armor-plated creatures, and then, unexpectedly, start rolling towards the screen, towards the viewer. What did movie audiences think in 1930 as these shiny, black, menacing machines moved towards them? By the riot's end, a single tank crashes through a wall, its main gun slowly swiveling, as sinister anything in H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. It’s impressive even now, watching on an Acer laptop in 2014. What was it like in one of the vaunted movie palaces of yesteryear? Did audiences cheer because the army was going to save the day? Or was there some fear, too, fear that the machines were coming not just for criminals, but for everybody…
The Big House, now available on DVD as part of the Warner Bros Archive Collection, was a spectacular success for MGM, and ushered in the prison movie as a viable genre. Films had been set in prisons before, but it was The Big House that established the characters and themes that would mark the genre forever (ie. the scared new guy, the crusty lifers, the conniving weasel, the kindly old guard, the dour but ineffectual warden, the inevitable jail break, etc.). The film was also a marked contrast to the slick films made by MGM at the time, causing Chester B. Bahn of the Syracuse Herald to write that this "stark tragedy" was "so horrible, so devastating, that you don't want to think about it, don't want to talk about it."
Although prison movies weren't churned out the way westerns and horror movies were during the 1930s, the subject undoubtedly had legs. We still see prison movies today, as well as TV shows (of both the scripted and “non-scripted” variety). But every prison movie or show we see now has something of The Big House in its DNA. The Big House did it first, and I’m not sure if any modern prison movies have done it any better. More explicit, perhaps, but not better.
For one thing, The Big House was unabashedly artsy. Directed by George Hill with photography by Harold Wenstrom, the film is framed by rich, deep blacks that gave the atmosphere a harder edge than most black and white films of the day. A more accurate description of the film would be “black & grey,” for there isn’t much white in it. Grey is the color of the prison uniform, and grey is the color of the detainees’ pasty complexions. The prison is a murky place, and when a con is being marched into the “dungeon” to serve some time in solitary, it’s as if he’s being marched into the very wings of Hell.
The opening scene follows a truck filled with new prisoners as it approaches the monolithic, unnamed building. There’s something about the scene that looks like an illustration come to life, especially when the prisoners step out of the truck and appear incredibly tiny as they march into the prison. Kent (Robert Montgomery) is a newbie, sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter after killing a man in a car accident. He’s thrown into a cramped cell with two legitimately bad men, Butch (Wallace Beery) and Morgan (Chester Morris). One of the warden’s aids laments that a young kid doesn’t stand a chance in a cell with such hard cases, to which the warden agrees that overcrowding and idleness are the banes of the prison system. Kent’s journey through prison life, though, is only part of the story. The film's greatness comes from the interplay between Butch and Morgan, for they are two hardened criminals who lean on each other to get through their dreary days.
Butch is downright sadistic, the sort of brute who harasses people only to back off and say, “I was only kidding.” He’s allegedly murdered several people, including a few of his past girlfriends, but one never knows if he’s serious or not. He also lets his temperament get the best of him, even turning on his buddy Morgan more than once during the film. Morgan, meanwhile, falls for Kent’s sister (Leila Hyams) when he spots her during visiting hours.
The film works best when it focuses on the convict's daily grind. Prisoners amuse themselves with cockroach races, cruel pranks, and reading each other’s letters from home. One exceptional scene involves Butch, who can’t read, asking Morgan to read a recent piece of mail, which turns out to be a note confirming the death of Butch’s mother. For a moment we see Butch show some emotion, but he’s also resigned to the fact that there’s nothing he can do. Then there’s the disturbing night when Morgan and Butch both end up in solitary. The scene is chilling, for while Butch and Morgan try to have a conversation through their walls, their dialog is drowned out by the increasingly loud screams of other prisoners who have clearly gone insane.
Art director Cedric Gibbons, an 11-time Oscar winner with such films to his credit as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Singing in the Rain (1952), combined with Hill and Wenstrom to create a prison environment that resembled something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). The prison walls are impossibly high, and the chow hall seems the size of a football stadium; when the cons are lined up for lunch, or marching in lockstep into the yard, there’s a direct echo of Lang’s dystopian, mechanized society. The tableau of 3,000 or so men, shot from far away to demonstrate how their identities have been stripped, is repeated often in the film and is breathtaking each time.
There’d been some suspicion that MGM was creating a prison film to exploit the attention given to real life prison riots (some sources claim the film was inspired by the botched escape attempt of Albert "Danny" Daniels, a petty criminal who killed several people and then himself during the bloody Canon City Prison riot of Oct. 3, 1929), but Hill, as well as MGM's Irving Thalberg, were intent on making a "message picture" about the imperfect American prison system. Glenn Frank, President of the University of Wisconsin and a proponent of prison reform, wrote an effusive editorial praising the film as "one of the triumphs of the talking screen." For a time in the 1930s, the film was even shown in urban schools to give city kids an idea of what might lay ahead if they chose a life of crime, a precursor to the infamous ‘Scared Straight!’ documentary that would come decades later.
The Big House also marked turning points for its two leads, Beery and Morris. Beery had been a second banana during the silent era, and his place in the new sound era was uncertain. As the mercurial Butch (a role originally meant for Lon Chaney) Beery provides the film with a crazy pulse, chilling one moment, likable the next. Growling his lines, pushing his way through crowds like a dinosaur emerging from a tar pit, Beery is absolutely magnetic. Perhaps he knew his career was at a crossroads and he had to fire on all cylinders for this role. Beery earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in The Big House, and within a year or two would be one of the highest paid actors in the business. Morris, too, showed he was better than his past roles may have indicated. Usually cast as a heavy, Morris showed in The Big House that he could also be charming.
The screenplay was written by MGM's dynamo, Frances Marion, whose work on The Big House would earn her an Academy Award for "Best Writing Achievement." (Martin Flavin and Joe Farnham are credited with "additional dialog," but there was no Oscar for that category!) Marion's effort to bring realism to the film is a story in itself. She visited San Quentin's dankest cell blocks for inspiration and had to withstand the condescending attitude of Warden James Hoolihan, who tried to intimidate her by inviting her to a hanging.
Marion came away from San Quentin determined to capture the slamming cell doors and shuffling footsteps of the place (which went a long way toward Douglas Shearing’s Oscar for “Best Sound”). She also picked up on the prison vernacular during a tour of the prison kitchen and butcher shop. Marion found herself working closely with George Hill, which resulted in a romance and marriage. Ultimately, though, the marriage didn't stick, and neither did Marion's relationship with Hollywood. After another Oscar win for The Champ (1931), she worked less frequently until leaving the movie business in the early 1940s to write novels and plays. Marion famously complained that writing for film had become like "writing on the sand with the wind blowing."
The Warner Archive two-disc set includes the Spanish and French language versions of The Big House. Before someone got the bright idea to include foreign language subtitles or dubbing, big studios such as MGM often shot films in multiple languages for overseas distribution. This was done by filming scenes with an alternate cast simultaneously as the English speaking version, often at night. El Presidio, the Spanish version of The Big House, was directed by Ward Wing, an MGM journeyman writer/director who, according to some sources, had an uncredited hand in directing some scenes in The Big House. (For that matter, screenwriter Edgar Neville, who later made a career in Spanish cinema, is sometimes credited with co-directing El Presidio. If you ever needed proof that filmmaking is a collaborative art, just try figuring out the credits for these three movies.)
The Spanish and French versions follow the same blueprint of The Big House, almost shot for shot (the crowd scenes are the same in each movie) but there are subtle differences. The cast of El Presidio, for instance, play their roles with a more subdued, realistic style. I’ll go so far as to say Tito Davison is actually superior to Montgomery as Kent, the youngster. Montgomery does a little bit of scenery chewing, but Davison underplays his role, which works for the character. I also liked the Spanish warden (Juan de Homs), who stands by stoically like the captain of a ship as the riot explodes all around him.
In the key role of Butch, Juan De Landa plays a somewhat buffoonish character, laughing too loudly at his own jokes. When he leads the revolt at the film’s climax, however, we believe his class clown persona hides the dark mind of an ace criminal. (Incidentally, the makeup department fitted De Landa with a nasty scar across his face, as if something was needed to darken his jolly demeanor.)
Silent film veteran Jaques Feyder was to direct the French version, but was replaced mid production by Pal Fejos. Révolte dans la Prison (1931) sees the unlikely casting of Charles Boyer as Morgan. Boyer could never be anything less than charismatic and suave, but he’s still believable as a convict, sauntering through the prison yard like a man with all the answers. The French version also has a lighter ambience than the English and Spanish features. For instance, there’s a dwarf prisoner that the convicts carry around like a mascot, and the French actors seem to float through prison life with a shrug. The French dialog, as evidenced by the subtitles, is noticeably more verbose. The Spanish version, for example, has Butch say to Morgan during the riot, "Let me see your face so I can put a bullet in it." The French version, from Yves Mirande's interpretation of Marion's original screenplay, reads "Show me your face so I can put a slug between your horns," which probably wasn’t a line picked up by Marion during her tour of San Quentin.
As Butch, Andre Berley is imposing with his enormous belly, but he seems too old for the role (he was 50 at the time). A scene where Butch has to carry Kent and hoist him up to a top bunk in their cell is shot and edited in a way that we don't actually see Berley do the lifting. I imagine Berley wasn't up to it, or that a dummy was used. Even in the riot scenes, Berley lacks the sense of danger that makes Butch such a great character. Then again, it’s unfair to compare him to Wallace Beery, for few could match Beery’s gloriously berserk performance.
Aside from the Spanish and French editions, there are no extras. Still, this two-disc set from the Warner Archive is a fine tribute to the granddaddy of all prison flicks.